Amid unusual strains in the bilateral ties, the US and Israel have tentatively agreed to a deal that would send Israel a second squadron of F-35 fighter jets from the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin, costing upward of $3 billion, roughly one-fifth of Israel’s annual defense budget.
The transaction, which is still subject to Israeli government approval, was sealed during meetings in Washington last week between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Israeli news website Walla reported Tuesday.
Neither the IDF nor the Defense Ministry would comment or confirm the deal.
At its heart, the agreement reflects Israel’s belief in the need to deal with powerful enemies far afield, such as Iran, and in the enduring importance of aerial supremacy, even as most of Israel’s wars are fought against militants and terrorists armed with rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, tunnels and mortars, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts.
Israel and the US agreed to a deal in October 2010 that would send Israel one squadron of 19 F-35A Lightning II jets. The first two fighter aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to the IAF in 2016 for training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, with seven additional aircraft to be delivered in 2017 and the remaining 10 in 2018.
The second squadron of planes is expected in 2019, and, although the deal also reportedly includes an arrangement by which the Israel Aircraft Industries will build 811 pairs of wings for Lockheed Martin, the steep price of the aircraft has generated controversy over the necessity of the deal in light of Israel’s current security challenges and budgetary constraints.
Traditionally, Israel’s air force, which has ruled the skies since the 1982 Lebanon War, has received slightly more than 50 percent of the annual defense budget – the precise percentage is classified.
Each F-35A, to be named Adir in Israel, costs roughly $150 million, with a full squadron claiming the entire annual three-billion-dollar US aid package.
“It’s nice to have, but amid today’s budgetary constraints I just don’t see any need for it,” said Moshe Arens, a former defense minister and former deputy director general at Israel Aircraft Industries, of the new fighter aircraft.
Arens said that there are “lots of areas where the money is needed,” for example to acquire replacements for the “matchbox-like” M-113 armored personnel carriers in which some Golani troops entered Gaza this summer. A July 20 ambush left seven troops dead in one of the antiquated, malfunctioning APCs in the Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiya.
A senior officer in the IDF ground forces told Channel 2 in 2013 that with the money slated for the F-35, the Defense Ministry could have bought 600 new tanks or hundreds of Iron Dome and Arrow interceptors, or generally used the funds to upgrade the entire ground force. “Look, in the end, everyone likes to talk about Iran but in the day-to-day battles it is not the air force that provides the solution – and if it is, then it isn’t the fighter planes.”
This certainly seemed evident during the 50-day conflict this summer with Hamas. The air force struck thousands of targets often enmeshed within a civilian population, and managed not to hit a single IDF soldier on the ground. However, with the IAF working at what one general called 10 percent of its capacity, the air force, as in the Second Lebanon War, was unable to push Israel’s enemy to the negotiating table and Israel was forced to summon an under-trained, under-funded ground force to the theater of operations.
Therefore, Arens suggested constant upkeep of the F-15s and F-16s currently in use and the purchase of newer aircraft of the same make rather than the leap to the F-35. Rejecting claims that the F-35, a long-range stealth fighter, is necessary for a sophisticated strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Arens said, “I don’t see anything in the area that the IAF is not capable of dealing with.”
Brig. Gen. (res) Asaf Agmon, the head of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies and a former IAF pilot and commander, disagreed. He said the F-35 was not merely another plane but “a fighting system” with the ability to, first, evade enemy radar and, second, not merely drop a one-ton bomb, “as in Osirak” – Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor – but also to coordinate and connect with other weapons systems, which “today’s planes can’t do.”
Agmon also dismissed reports of certain F-35 malfunctions, calling them “childhood illnesses” that occurred during the development of the previous generation of fighter planes, the F-15s and F-16s.
Furthermore, he said, those who contend that Israel ought to make do with the previous generation of aircraft until the first model of unmanned fighter jet is unveiled should be aware that it will likely cost more and that the “survivability” of such a jet will be lower.
A failure to arm itself with the F-35, he cautioned, would not only put Israel in danger of losing its technological edge in the coming 10-15 years but would jeopardize Israel’s regional air superiority.
Noting the scheduled arrival of top-line Russian air defense systems in the region and an advanced Russian fighter jet in the works, he said that, while many contend that Syria is a shambles and Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt and Turkey does not seem to be seeking war with Israel and Iran does not have a cutting edge air force, “that is all true for today. It could change in the blink of an eye.”
Israel, he added, “has no choice. We have to invest, to pay the high price, if we want to maintain our strategic superiority.”